59) The Other Sides of Srebrenica

A Conversation Beyond Genocide Among the Younger Generation

“In the first few days I felt guilty that I really enjoyed Srebrenica. It’s so beautiful and  amazing. I love small towns in the mountains. I thought that I’m supposed to […] be angry about what happened […] Like, I’m not supposed to have these feelings.” (Sara)

I empathise with Sara here, and I understand her thoughts. But actually— who determines  what we are “supposed to feel”, and from what viewpoint of Srebrenica does this originate? 

In July 2021, I had the chance to participate in a summer school in Srebrenica, organised by the Post Conflict Research Center (PCRC) and the Srebrenica Memorial Center. It was the first time for me to meet young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and to see the area around Srebrenica and the town myself— not just in a documentary or in photographs in a museum. After the week, I left the summer school with the feeling of having learned so much about the Srebrenica massacre and the genocide during the Bosnian War. I wanted people at home to pay more attention to that. But I also wanted people to look beyond this widely-known and all-encompassing image of Srebrenica. I had seen different aspects, joyful, ugly and neutral ones, and I thought it to be important for others to recognise some of the pretty sides of Srebrenica as well.

This could be counted as an argument for positive journalism1. This concept, which has been introduced only in recent years, aims at giving positive news a bigger share in the overall news coverage. It is a response to the dominance of negative news, like problems and disruptions in the system, which can lead to a distorted picture of reality (e.g. an overly negative one). This way of doing journalism can have discouraging effects: many and constant bad news can create a feeling of helplessness, because problems appear too big to be solved. This is to be challenged by positive journalists, who aim at complementing and expanding this mainstream, one-sided type of journalism. Using different perspectives in their work, they can provide a more diverse picture. Positive news which are outcome-oriented can support people and motivate them to invest into society, even at times of crisis. Positive Journalism is not supposed to be propaganda or wrong-placed optimism that paints bad news in pretty colours, and traps like oversimplification are to be avoided. But it attempts an in total well-balanced news coverage. Critical reporting does not exclude looking at good results and positive processes.

Why is this important for me in the case of Srebrenica? As Sara’s quote demonstrated, some of us do not even seem to think that we are allowed or that it is possible to be happy there. And if that was to become the only narrative, the idea of the place, it is in danger to become the only reality as well. Therefore, what I am aiming for with this article is to give some insights to other aspects, other stories and perspectives that concern Srebrenica.

I am by far not the first to use this approach in this context. People from Srebrenica, who have experienced the massacre as Hasan Hasanovic, talked about this before, said to look at different sides of Srebrenica and at their everyday life beyond the ceremonies. Also creating an actual project to show positive stories of the town is not a new idea, as the eSrebrenica portal shows. Moll2 provides examples of two initiatives in BiH that collected positive stories of helpers and rescuers during the war. Stories that connect and unite people, instead of divide them. Their motivation was to break the dominant narratives of guilt and victimhood, overcome the dichotomy of perpetrators and victims and emphasise that even in war, good acts of humanity are to be found. The stories show that there are good people and make sure that these pieces of peace inside a conflict are not forgotten. They give hope, also for the future. And since the positive stories opened up other and more differentiated views of the past, it is possible to also see other paths for the future. Another, similar example would be the Ordinary Heroes project from PCRC. There are more examples, but the following is about our learning and talking about the other sides of Srebrenica.

The lunch conversations we had together in the summer school, during which we talked about what is known of Srebrenica and what brings people there, resulted in a group interview for this article: excerpts of a conversation with five young people3 about what sides, or what aspects, we see of Srebrenica. And what we want the world to see in this place. 

The first association– and then some more

The first thing I asked, since I was curious about what everyone was associating with Srebrenica after we had all been there, was what the others thought of the town. Very quickly their reflections strayed to and stayed at the memorial center and the graveyard. And when I asked for learning about Srebrenica, they seemed to understand it as equivalent to learning about the genocide. Because this is the all-dominant association and for many people the only knowledge they have about the place. 

However, I wanted to discuss Srebrenica also outside the frame of genocide. The place is more than that, it has several faces. Sandro, whose family is from Srebrenica, said to everyone who “has heard about Srebrenica because of the genocide… [that] we also have another, brighter side”. He told us about the history of the town, about how old it is, how it had seen empires from Rome to Austria-Hungary , how important it was for the region, how it was once well-known for mining and freshwater resources. He enjoys talking to people and showing them the beauties of the town to visitors and friends: 

“And when I talk with them, I try to share my experience and all historical parts with them, to show that Srebrenica was not [a] big city […], but it’s a city with big history here. And if you focus on other things, before the genocide, Srebrenica was [a] really important city, not only for Bosnia, but for whole Balkan.”

Following this, I asked specifically what they thought of the town Srebrenica itself, where most summer school participants stayed during the week. It often seemed as if people — since the genocide is often the only thing they know about Srebrenica unless they are from the area— picture the town as empty, without life, without perspectives. And for some of us, this picture held true throughout our stay: “I know I heard Srebrenica is [an] empty town, but when I went there and I see it’s empty and no one is there, I kind of felt that it’s really empty […] and it’s so sad.” (Belmin).

For others, it did not. The reductionist image of Srebrenica, built on media reports as well as photos and stories about the genocide, started to erode and become more diverse. Kristina said: “I was also surprised with the beautiful nature […] I was always certain by the potential of the town. But it’s not even mentionable, that there is a lot of beauty in Srebrenica.” In a similar manner, Vildana admitted that “when I came there, my whole picture of the town was changed”. She learned for herself, 

“[t]hat Srebrenica has amazing Youth, that Srebrenica is an amazing town, we need to remember that and for me, that was the most important part of that school. The experience of the town. So my picture changed and […] I would like to come in winter, to see how the city looks in that time of the year.” (Vildana)

And a third participant, Sara, said:

“So the perspective and way of life of the people in Srebrenica is just… ‘we do not give a fuck about ending of the world, we need to make it work’, you know? That kind of approach I like, so I really enjoyed everything that happened and the support that I got, you know. […]. So that’s something that I cannot explain and find the right words for it, but I love Srebrenica”. (Sara)

Hearing that people do easily find these bright spots and are capable of seeing the good gives me a lot of hope for the future, hope that Srebrenica will not stay the empty town that people expect to find. However, that is not to ignore or sugarcoat the holes, cracks and emptiness that still exist, e.g. the posters of war criminals that are still being celebrated by some in the area.

After hearing a lot of praise about the town, Sandro– who previously listed a lot of good sides himself– also said, that Srebrenica is indeed empty, and that according to him, there is no perspective currently: “I can see that Srebrenica is city of ghosts and everything and we need to wake up this city, not only this city but the whole country.”

What I want to say is that I am not trying to romanticise emptiness, but to show that there is more than just one view, and that there is potential in Srebrenica which needs to be supported in order to let it grow beyond a single event, telling more than a single story.

“[W]hen you talk about Srebrenica, you need to know that Srebrenica is not just about genocide, but when you talk about genocide you need to understand that not only Srebrenica but whole world has lost some great potential […]”. (Sandro)

This leads me to the greatest potential, which are young people — who often move away, which leaves this potential unfulfilled and problems unsolved.

About Youth & Future

Young people moving away from Srebrenica and going to the EU due to the lack of perspective, as Sandro tells us, is not an individual phenomenon in the Balkans. Whether it is for getting a good job or for creating real change, they are searching elsewhere. Like Sandro, young people love their homes and want to create change, but the possibilities to do so are oftentimes lacking. Therefore, I found it encouraging to hear and see that there are people who are taking on that big challenge and work actively on shaping the future of Srebrenica.

“[T]he town as a town […] sometimes felt empty, but people in the city amazed me, especially young people. I was so amazed with their positivity, happiness, and stuff like that, how much they try to present Srebrenica in other ways than genocide. They are trying to promote Srebrenica as a town. I mean, I know it’s important that we know what happened there, but at the same time we need to know that Srebrenica isn’t just only that.” (Vildana)

Organisations or local news sometimes report about the small heroes from next door. Making these aspects of Srebrenica visible is one way for the potential to grow and bear fruits in overcoming its past.

“I was really surprised like everyone said with Youth, with how smart they are… Maybe that’s a stereotype, maybe that’s something that we shouldn’t be thinking when we [first meet] them, but I was really surprised with how they are full of life. […] they are just the future and we were thinking about how can Srebrenica evolve with them.” (Kristina)

When we talked about this, it reminded me about a (politically) divisive debate that is at the heart of the discussions about Srebrenica’s future. It is the question of reconciliation, often framed as question of discovering the truth or fueling conflicts again, reconciliation or giving-in to the enemy, working with the past to prevent genocide from repeating, or moving on and looking into the future? These questions, which are discussed in academia and politics, I expected to essentially shape life in Srebrenica as well. I should not have thought in either-or terms in the beginning, and was therefore surprised by some responses, e.g. when Sandro shared what his father had told him:

“‘[Learn] anything you can learn from internet and that stuff, but… [the] only thing I want to say to you is that you need to be human, with all those people, no matter that [the] father from your friend has killed your part of [the] family or so, that’s not important. It’s important, but for you that’s not important. You were born after the war, you need to live your life.’”

These kinds of sentiments, of moving on, I heard more than once. Have people found their answer, without talking about it? I do not know. The impression that I got was that they are most concerned with their current lives, about everyday struggles: having a job, an income, a future, these are the most pressing issues to take care of. That does not mean that they forgot about the genocide– but they do not want to be stuck looking backwards, but move forward and create a future: “If you think about our past, it’s okay, but we need to think about our future and future of our kids, our grandchildren and so on…” (Sandro).

There was also a moment when Sandro took charge of the interview, when we switched roles for a moment, because he asked me about what I felt and thought of the days in Srebrenica, Bratunac, Bosnia and everything. Following my answer, he asked: “[…] would you believe me that I think that nobody will ask you, in Srebrenica, nobody will ask you this question and nobody would care about what you think about that happening here […]?” He told me that people just want to live and talk about their “normal life”. Not that the past would not matter, but at least for everyday life it does not, because there, they are looking towards the future. This is only one perspective of many. Others might say that they cannot move on, that there is no chance for a good future, until the past has been worked with and until there has been some justice. The debates about this were renewed when discussions about the new genocide denial law in BiH arose.

Learning: first in School, then on-site?

“In Bosnia we don’t learn about war in Bosnia and I don’t know if it’s shocking for you, but people here need to learn from their parents, father, grandfathers or so. [F]irst time that I heard about [the] war, […] was because of Iron Maiden and their concert in Sarajevo during the siege of Sarajevo.” (Sandro)

We had started by talking about what each of us knew about Srebrenica, and what we had learned before about it. As it is often discussed in debates about problems in peace building and genocide denial in Bosnia, no one had learned much in school about the genocide. By not addressing the issue through formal education, genocide denial is being reinforced. The group told me how hard it is to discuss the issue. Vildana described how she had been to Srebrenica as a young teenager, and was very confused about what to feel when she heard about what had happened there. In contrast to that, at the summer school, “I was there for seven days, so I had the time to process everything and think about it more, [in case I had] some questions to ask. And I had people with [who] I could have discussions with and share my opinions.” Vildana said that while she knew the basic information before, she knew nothing about the people and their stories. What might be missing, besides factual knowledge, is exactly that, an actual understanding of the crimes.

Despite those educational gaps, all of us who went to the summer school knew about the events around Srebrenica in 1995, and everyone had some kind of interest in learning more about it. However, no one could be really prepared for what we were to learn or to see or feel during the days we spent there. Being in a place is something entirely different than reading about it.

“[W]hen I see all the graves and stuff in the memorial center, you can feel the one part of the genocide and it’s way, way better feeling than when you study in school. So, my knowledge increased during the camp this July.” (Belmin)

It was not always an easy experience, to see the places where things happened, to read names, which were too familiar for some of the participants. However, the group agreed that more people should go to Srebrenica themselves— to get their own experience, which sparks interest in another way than learning about it from a distance.

“I think more people need to go there, in order [to] actually understand the story. […] being there and talking with mothers of Srebrenica, talking with the Youth or people who went through it, it’s just a different experience.” (Sara)

We appreciated that we could stay for several days. In our opinion, a one-day-visit to the annual ceremony is too short to really grasp what the memorial is about, although one week is as well. Learning more about the place also means looking beyond the big events and the main narratives that we are usually presented with. This is not to say that the ceremony would not be very important for the remembrance and acknowledgment of the crime, it only means to say that actions should not stop there.

“[…] come to Srebrenica to learn more about the individuality of people, about the Youth of Srebrenica and not just about… of course, to visit the memorial center and the rest, but I feel like […] you have the wider perspective when you go to a city like Bratunac and then you sleep in Srebrenica”. (Kristina)

In our conversation, there was a general agreement that education about the genocide is crucial for genocide prevention, and to work against hate speech and crimes from happening in the future.

“Well, I think that main thing about Srebrenica is the genocide and we have to talk about genocide, so we don’t have to experience it again. It’s a well-known historical fact that in Višegrad, about 1943, 50 years before Srebrenica, there was a genocide in Višegrad, where 1000 Muslims were killed. And after that 50 years again, after that we have genocide. So we can observe that genocide is something that was before, happened again, and possibly could get back in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so we have to talk about it, we have to […] be aware of that phenomenon […].” (Belmin)

Sensible to the question of responsibilities, Sara also noted: 

“[W]e need to take into consideration that people who went through it are not obliged or they’re not… they’re not there to teach us, you know, what happened. We need to do that on our own”. (Sara)

Currently, the world seems to remember Srebrenica once a year on the 7th of July for the commemoration. What if people from outside the region, if all of us, engaged with it more often than that? What if we did not only talk about a “never again” in the Balkan context, but recognise and name the actual patterns of what happens today in other places as well? And what if we expanded our view, our picture of Srebrenica beyond the genocide to all the other things that make up this town?

Those who went to the summer school are certainly not representative of all the young people across the country. But they show that there is Youth that is interested, informed and concerned about these issues. 

One final question…

In this article I wanted to look beyond some typical stories, beyond the annual ceremony and the “never again” speeches, and hear about what is less talked about, the everyday aspects to those narratives, or the perspectives besides them. In the summer school, there was some space for exchange, to talk about different views. Open and safe spaces for that purpose are needed more often. What I got to know from our conversation and from the week in summer, were several different views on the town Srebrenica. Not all of them, but some more than before. I got the chance to form my own picture of the place, which I can continue to develop (and I want to invite everyone to do the same).

The memorialisation of the genocide is very important, as are research about it came to happen, education about it and genocide prevention in the future. However, I want to remember, that Srebrenica as a place is more than this genocide, and genocide is a phenomenon that concerns not only this region. Crimes like a genocide needs to be treated as an issue of humanity in total, and not just one that concerns Srebrenica, or Rwanda, or Armenia. And a commemoration alone is not enough to address them, because one might get the impression that at such an event, people can be sad, shocked and sorry for one moment, just to leave the place of the event in the next moment again and with that also the issue behind. One more reason, to not limit our attention to one day in the year and Srebrenica to the massacre. 

I argue that it is problematic to promote only one narrative, in this case a negative one. A more differentiated view is needed to move beyond dichotomies and fixed categories like victims and perpetrators— or peace and conflict. Because showing the positive sides of the place, the potential and the light, can inspire and bring courage to people who want to create something new in the region, young people who want to stay and build up a life or a business there. Catastrophes make the news quicker, but when one only looks into the bad past, one might overlook the potential for the future. The potential to overcome these past problems. For this reason, I consider it crucial to look for different perspectives, through different lenses, for different sides and opinions to one subject, that make up complex realities— not only in the case of Srebrenica, but everywhere.

My final question to the group asked what they want the world to see and know of Srebrenica. The aspect of potential was mentioned several times. Giving the town the opportunity to grow and show other sides, and encouraging the world to experience those as well.

“Well, I just want to say that people in Bosnia, and people all around the world need to know that Srebrenica isn’t a sorrowful city of ghosts. For me it represents sleeping beauty that needs to be woken up by all of us […]. And we need to see it from this perspective and we need to give a chance to young people to show, in Srebrenica, to show what they can do actually, because they can do a lot. And I think that we are not even conscious of what power they… if they had the power, what would they do for the local community and for the country. And for me, that’s like the most important message that we need to remember, […] what actually in reality Srebrenica is.” (Vildana)

And while disagreeing on whether Srebrenica is an empty town or not, Sandro said that we need to give kids role models that changed the world for the better, to talk about Nicola Tesla instead of Ratio Mladić as hero: 

“We need to make and to teach our kids to be really good and really famous and everything, because they need to help this world. That’s my message for the end”. 

I agree with that, because the stories we tell, they shape us, teach us, inspire us.

1) Positive journalism is sometimes equalised with “Constructive Journalism”, while other authors argue that there are differences between both types.

2) Moll, N. (2019) “Promoting ‘Positive Stories’ of Help and Rescue from the 1992-1995 War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. An Alternative to the Dichotomy of Guilt and Victimhood?”, Südosteuropa, 67(4), pp. 447-475.

3) This conversation took place with five young people who were from BiH or had a Bosnian family. One person’s family was from Srebrenica, the others were from other cities in the country. We had all met at the summer school. Some had been to Srebrenica before, others had not.